Time for a reread of Peter Watts’ Blindsight. Ever since I discovered this novel a few years ago and rushed through it at a feverish pace within hours, I’ve had a fascination for it. Dense, mind-boggling, cutting-edge, horrifyingly bleak, sharp and intelligent. And it is the kind of book where rereading pays off, because things simply went over my head the first time. I am not convinced that any science fiction novel published since Blindsight has eclipsed it.
Watts is a master at writing those special sentences that make you go: “wait, what?” So that you immediately have to read on to find out what happens next. We begin with an account by a man named Siri, an autistic man who apparently had half his brain removed to cure his epilepsy, but who has a gift of observation. Watts throws in the following nuggets:
“Point of view matters: I see that now, blind, talking to myself, trapped in a coffin falling past the edge of the solar system.”
and this one: “But that, that distance—that chronic sense of being an alien among your own kind—it’s not entirely a bad thing. It came in especially handy when the real aliens came calling.”
See what I mean? Now I’ve got to read the next chapter.
And the next chapter is again an overload of information. Watts is very fond of using precise scientific terms. He talks of specific medication running through veins; he talks of AUs when mentioning distances in space; and his character Siri looks at his fellow passengers as a robot looking at the topology of people’s personalities and body language, without much emotional connection. So, when Watts suddenly starts talking about a humanoid vampire race (yes), resurrected Jurassic Park style, he envelops it in such formal scientific terms (and coolness) that it receives an aura of believability.
Blindsight is about a space mission to make first contact with aliens. Siri the autist is on the ship as impartial observer of his fellow crewmates, who are all not baseline humans: either psychopathic, half-robotic or having multiple personalities. The point is that these are all exceptional talents in certain situations, precisely because they are not neurotypical humans. Highest intelligence the planet has to offer. Siri’s autism and powers of observation, for example, makes him more suited for impartial reporting to mission control.
Blindsight starts off much like the film Alien (1979), and in a way feels inspired by it. Why, it is so dark I can just hear the ominous background music while reading. And since the characters are all mentally twisted for a reason, none of the conversations on board the ship feel, well, human. Watts explored this idea earlier in Starfish (1999), which is about a maintenance team at a geothermal energy station, 4 kilometers deep in the ocean. This environment is so extreme that only certain emotionally damaged people were chosen to be part of such teams, because they had higher chances of survival. Blindsight has the same approach. Reading a Watts novel has the same appeal as watching a psychological horror movie.
Watts spits out scientific jargon as if he is some scientist version of Clint Eastwood riding through the solar system, or some hard-nosed military type with PhDs in astronomy and biology. I am not familiar with each and every term and too lazy to look them up, but as long as you can form pictures of trajectories in space, radiation bands and human interaction as clusters of incoming data, you should be OK. It definitely helps that this is the second time reading it, because he can be quite ambiguous in his meanings. It is Watts’ greatest weakness as a writer and he is always in danger of making things too confusing for the story’s own good.
Watts’ greatest interest lies in human consciousness. Not only did he populate his space ship with all manner of non-baseline humans – psychopath, multiple identity, autist, cybernetically enhanced – but he stresses that what we as humans now have as consciousness, in our current snapshot of evolution, may be an aberration. His strange crew has mental talents beyond our own, and Watts speculates about humanoids in our evolutionary past having different consciousnesses. This is all groundwork for the horror of meeting the aliens. We tend to see our own consciousness as the apex of an evolutionary ladder, and Watts kicks this notion into the ground, along with all that we find holy about it.
Most of the novel is written as a cascade of scientific revelations about the aliens we find. And it is incredibly tense. The way Watts writes it, the crew is constantly hovering on the edge of mortal danger, while using bleeding-edge scientific ideas to stay in the game. We are running to keep up, and all the revelations point towards a horrifying vision of the universe.
Blindsight gained its pedestal as a unique and influential work because Watts was willing to wade through scientific work and engage with stunning ideas that never had been taken up by any other writer. Or, he combined many new ideas, synthesizing something new and scary. This is science directly influencing fiction. It remains a very thrilling work and a personal favorite.